Bara Kothi – The Oldest Haunted Edifice of Kolkata

Bara Kothi – The Oldest Haunted Edifice of Kolkata

A personal travel blog by Ms. Reetwika Banerjee

(Connect with her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/reetwika.banerjee)

Looking at the present conditions of the surroundings, who could imagine there stands a 1st century BC obliterated building belonging to the Sunga-Kusana period? Bored of spending our weekends in a typical metro lifestyle, this time we looked out for a vintage touch. Thanks to sources on internet, we discovered an intriguing place which has no authentic version of its original owner at a stone’s throw distance from Kolkata airport – the ‘Clive House’ of South Dum Dum, also referred as ‘Dumdum House’ at times.

 

Glimpse of Clive House 

 

 

91, Rastraguru Avenue is the postal address of the site and is popularly identified as ‘Clive House’ bus stop near ILS Hospital. Located at just 6 kilometres from Netaji Subhas International Airport along Jessore road, this ancient construction popped like a hidden wonder for wanderlusts like us. We had been to the locality several times earlier but could never expect to encounter a mound from Before Christ epoch right at the heart of Nagerbazar market.

 

Lower Ground in front of the Obliterated House

 

Soon after crossing the crowded junction, we took a sharp left when GPS location finder declared, “You have arrived.” It was quarter past three on a summer afternoon – as expected, there was not even a single person to ask for help. Standing amidst a concrete wilderness full of overgrown high rises and colourful apartments, a splash of private playground was the only breather around where our vision could stretch beyond a yard. Utterly frustrated, I was literally about to abuse GPS for the wrong marking right when one of us spotted a worn-out turret behind the ground. It definitely had a century old looks but reaching there was an exploration.

 

Thin Approach Road

 

Danger notice in front of the building

 

Parking our car near the football ground, we dared a gutsy stride through the thin brick lane along the ground’s barbed perimeter wall. You won’t believe, after taking say fifty odd steps from the motorway, we discovered a whole building – there were two storeys full of deep-rooted shrubs hanging from the roof and adjoining walls. A blue board revealed that the structure is an identified archaeological site of ASI.

 

Dilapidated southern entrance

 

Way though the peripheral slum

 

We were yet to find out the main entrance of the building. The exterior appearance did not look very reliable to breach the bambooed demarcations. Taking a few steps further, we reached almost the backside of the mansion depicting a renovated entrance from the northern side. Geographical directions are not important here, but history says Robert Clive was very particular about erecting prominent southern entry gates in all his residences. If this house belonged to him, we thought then there must be a lavish entrance in the opposite side. That instigated us to take a round of the rectangular edifice.

 

Semi-circular stairway at the northern entry

 

While walking down the four sides, history beckoned us to an unknown bliss – giant wooden windows that lost their grandeur over time, a lavish balcony in the second floor, semi-circular flight of steps, an extended portico, pillared hallways with fallen roofs, arched staircases, crumbled ceilings, remnants of overhanging lanterns, broken coloured glasses and many antique assets in ruins; perhaps only appreciated by the resident pigeons of urban era.

 

Present condition of the interiors

 

External renovation work stalled

 

Refugee nuisance along the boundary of a ‘protected’ monument

 

The periphery of the mansion is dwelled by a slum of refugee families who migrated to this side of the city during partition of Bengal. Their clumsy lifestyle inside such a heritage house was highly degrading the historical value of the building, posing a nuisance for the cleanliness of the site as well. We did not take the risk of stepping into the core of the building. Clicking a few snaps from the boundary, as we headed our way back, met an octogenarian from the same slum who narrated us the various folklores about ‘Clive House’ – adding the perfect touch to our vintage hunt.

 

Glimpses of Bara Kothi (Clive House)

 

Way back in the 17th century, there used to be a single-storey gold decked harem of Alivardi Khan, the Nawab of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. During the Nawabi regime, it was popularly known as ‘Bara Kothi’ (Grand Brothel). Right beside it was a gardened lake where white lotus bloomed round the year. The old Nawab was very fond of it and thus lovingly called it ‘Moti Jheel’, a namesake of his grand lakeside palace in Murshidabad. The premises was built on an elevated land and thus often referred by the Nawabs as ‘Dumdama’ which in Farsi (Persian) means ‘artificially raised mound’.

 

 

Ever since Robert Clive visited Calcutta, he always had greedy eyes on this lavish abode of the Nawabs. It is said, when the British marched towards Siraj’s camps in 1757, Clive had already ordered colonial kinsmen to reconstruct the building as per his newly married wife’s architectural fascinations and strictly instructed to complete the renovation before his homecoming. Eventually after he won the Battle of Plassey against Siraj-ud-Daullah, it was occupied by the British and renamed to ‘Clive House’ in honour of Lady Clive.

 

 

Now it is definitely a million-dollar question, how demonically overnight, an all-new floor bigger than the original with expatriate decorations could be completed. Some people even say that the original building of the Nawabs was demolished, looted and an artificial hillock was created piling up the debris in the middle of the lake dividing into two landscaped gardens on either side of the new construction. The one at the northern side was referred as High Ground (as it was slightly elevated than the other) while the one in front (southern side) as Low Ground.

 

 

This is what is found in the pages of history, but the haunting past of the mansion predates way beyond that. Even before the Nawabs, the site belonged to the Portuguese and Dutch traders who used to secretly hide their wealth and fire arms here in an underground chamber put up with extreme defence. That was the underlying reason of the differential architectural pattern of the two storeys, unusually thick walls of ground floor and low ceiling height of the upper level. The Europeans strictly prevented any aboriginal residential clusters to grow nearby but people staying at a distance from the castle often used to hear heavy sounds of underground canon testing (without realizing the source though). They thought it to be a haunting sound originating beneath the ground, thus referring the building as ‘Dam Dama’ which in colloquial language denotes heavy sound) and eventually got renamed to present day’s Dum Dum. There is an ordnance factory even today near ‘Clive House’, not sure if that too has its origin deep-rooted to the history of the ruins.

 

 

 

Another school of thought says the land actually belongs to a several millennium old civilization originating back to Sunga-Kusana time when the area used to be a royal courtyard. Ganges being nearby fostered civic developments of a wealthy and bourgeon merchant community conducive to an early urban settlement. With time as the river changed its course, the residents also slowly deserted the place migrating towards the south. Centuries later when Portuguese and Dutch merchants camped here, the ancient brick walls were overgrown by a thick layer of green grass – looking alike a mound from a distance. Later when they discovered hidden treasure inside the earthly cover, the foreigners erected a robust dome like a warehouse with thick walls (four to eight feet) and a moat around it, secretly continuing with their treasure hunt beneath the ground. Restricted public entry prevented trespassing which made their search easier.

 

 

Antique punch marked coins, seals with Nagari script inscriptions like ‘Samapasasya’ (meaning ‘belonging to Samapasa’, a language commonly used during 8th century AD in this belt of the country), exquisite terracotta plaques, bone jewellery, beads, semiprecious stones (like Lapis Lazuli, Jasper, Agate etc) raw crystals, pottery, cast copper and iron figurines, sculptures (including stylishly fabricated blackware, greyware and redware prevalent in 2nd century BC), a covert surface built of primeval lime and brick mortar stretching across an entire trench, a sunken fireplace surrounded by innumerable tortoise shells, fish scales and other artefacts excavated from the northern side of the property in recent years, indicate the feasibility of such a local hearsay.

 

 

Whatever be the obscure origin of the house, one thing we understood that it has undergone several rounds of hand changes – the latest of which is also more than 250 years old and still voicing its royal existence. This historic ‘Clive House’ was Lady Clive’s first city residence after she travelled to Calcutta all the way from London with her newly wedded husband Lt. Colonel Robert Clive. All other buildings named after Clive was in the honour of Mr. Clive and this perhaps is the only one named after his lady. Sources say Robert Clive used this residential complex as his seat of governorship for three years from 1756 to 1760 and right here the historic treaty between Mir Jafar and British was signed. Lady Clive loved the scenic gardens from her second floor balcony and often enjoyed kitty parties with her European acquaintances. The locality was always very important from a city life perspective and thus country’s one of the oldest airports was built here in 1924 and continues to be the largest air traffic hub of eastern India.

 

 

With time, the southern entry of the building has fallen down and restoration of the same could not be made possible. Though, the northern entrance has been recently renovated, but due to the risky condition of the ceiling, public entry is now prohibited. The same is also displayed with a notice from the authorities, blocking the entrance with bamboos. Though in skeletons, rightly claimed by the timeworn man, it’s ought to be the oldest edifice of Kolkata still surviving the ravages of time as a silent spectator of the glorious past of our country.

 

Celestial Holi Celebrations with Mt. Kanchenjunga from ‘Dinajpur House’

A personal travel blog by Ms. Reetwika Banerjee

(Connect with her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/reetwika.banerjee)

 

This Holi, the festival of colours, we planned our celebrations little differently. We booked a night stay at the century old heritage bungalow of the Dinajpur Kings to treat our eyes with the colourful Holi celebrations of the rising Sun and majestic Mt. Kanchenjunga. Since my childhood, I remember my grandma’s description of the mesmerizing views of the peaks on a full moon night. What could have been a better time to witness the celestial colour plays in the morning and gorgeous views of the entire range on a full moon night?

 

 

‘Dinajpur House’ is located on Ringkingpong Road, at a beautiful hill top near Kalimpong. Perched at an altitude of 4100 feet above sea level, it is around 80 kilometres (three hours’ drive) from the Bagdogra airport. It was not my first visit to Kalimpong though, but yes the first stay at the vintage bungalow for sure.

 

We boarded a local taxi from airport after loads of bargains and filthy negotiation with the prepaid brokers. Honestly speaking, where so many foreigners visit round the year, the transport authorities must work towards strengthening the governance, in interest of the tourists.

 

View of Teesta River from Coronation Bridge

 

We continued on NH10 for major part of our journey, crossing a rail bridge near Sevoke. A chilly wind pierced our skin as we kept soaring up the hills towards Ringkingpong. We avoided the overcrowded downtown area by taking the Kalimpong Bypass route. Fortunately, the driver knew the roads well and we faced no issues reaching our hotel. We had a prior reservation at the ‘Dinajpur House’. Fresh gleams of moonlight had totally flooded the place by the time we reached the place.

 

Beautifully decorated entrance of ‘Dinajpur House’

 

The hotel entrance was beautifully lit and decorated with flowering plants to add a festive touch. Our check-in was hassle free. We were given a garden view room at the third floor. The antique woodworks of the hotel lobby and reception area were noteworthy. However, the room quality and cleanliness must be improved compared to the tariff.

(No tea coffee kits were provided, wall to wall carpets were not available, no slippers in room, toiletries provided were of very ordinary quality, bathroom was very clumsy, drinking water was not purified and so on. These are some basic amenities which any boarder would expect from a star hotel.)

 

Keeping aside the hotel amenities, the building has a very attractive fact attached to its existence. Centuries ago, ‘Dinajpur House’ was inhabited by the Maharaja of Dinajpur as his summer retreat. It is strategically positioned around a kilometre above the Kalimpong town, facing north-east, with a panoramic view of the landscape from the main podium. It still belongs to the Dinajpur royal estate; however a portion of it has been recently renovated and leased out to the luxurious Park Hotel group for tourist accommodation.

 

I would like to highlight an important point here – location of the hotel is splendid only for tourists who want to avoid the crowded Kalimpong market area, otherwise one might feel very isolated being here. That also implies there was not a single shop in and around the hotel within a kilometre’s range. Since we were in an utterly relaxing mood, we just loved the seclusion.

 

It was the eve of Dol Purnima (full moon night before Holi) and the prevailing weather was just complementing the cosmic positions of the celestial bodies. The outside temperature was little below ten degrees with a frosty breeze blowing at night. Being there at this time of the year, a bonfire was arranged by the hotel staff and we were warmly invited to attend it while completing our check-in formalities.

 

Bonfire at ‘Dinajpur House’

 

We quickly freshened up as we had midnight plans to observe the much awaited view of the snow-caps on a moonlit night. The beautiful aroma of hot Darjeeling tea refreshed our weariness in a jiffy. And we decided to take a walk within the hotel premises.

 

Antique fireplace and other vintage items at ‘Dinajpur House’

 

The heritage aspect of the hotel was the most attractive part of our stay and it was quite evident from the well maintained trophy room and outhouse turned to bar. There were wonderful antique collections of furniture, utensils, grandpa’s clock, a Victorian wall clock, a magnificent fireplace, stuffed animals etc to add up to our grand experience. From one of the hotel boys we came to know that the building has been often portrayed in old and new Bengali films including a recent release.

 

Bonfire had already started by the time we came back to the reception area. We planned to have our dinner at the adjoining restaurant. Food taste was good and of sufficient quantity but they did not have water purifiers at all. Only option was bottled mineral waters being sold at elevated prices. They serve natural spring waters without being cautioned. People planning to stay with kids, beware.

 

The receptionist told us that on a cloudless night, Mt. Kanchenjunga peaks are best visible from its top floor observatory (fourth floor) and the ornate garden adjoining reception area. But we must wake up early to experience the best view, say around 1am in the morning. It would be our first midnight view of the Kanchenjunga range and so we were extremely excited.

 

Midnight View of Kanchenjunga Range on Dol Purnima (full moon night before Holi) 

 

Alarm echoed sharp at 1am and we dragged our tired bodies to the top floor observatory. It was dark otherwise, except a glowing snowline at a stone throwing distance. Couldn’t believe our own eyes – it was absolutely cloudless that night and we could clearly see all the peaks of the entire Kanchenjunga range – right from Mr. Kumbhakarna at extreme left to Mt. Pandim and the main Mt. Kanchenjunga peaks at the centre. Oh, what a lifetime view it was! Our midnight celebrations were revelled with a toast.

 

Rising Sun – as viewed from top floor observatory of ‘Dinajpur House’

 

Next wait was for another three and half hours – the fire plays of rising sun kissing the snow peaks with saffron and silver colours. Alarm buzzed sharp at 5.30am. Morning sun’s first glows started appearing and slowly the blue outlines became visible. It was right at 6.15am when the Mt. Kanchenjunga main peaks became feebly visible.

 

By 6.30am, the outline of the entire Kanchenjunga range was visible on our left while the sun rose from our right. The view of the changing colours on the white snow was not just great, but splendid. It seemed like as if Lord Krishna took the form of the Sun, to play Holi with his beloved Radha in a white dress, waiting to be drenched.

 

Colour plays of Sun and Kanchenjunga on Holi morning – Saffron – Yellow – Blue – Silver – White

 

 

 

We also went to the garden to experience the view and it was worth the efforts. Nevertheless, most of the hotel rooms did not face the snow clads.

 

(From left) Kumbhakarna, Ratong, Kabru S, Kabru N, Talung _ Kanchendzonga peaks

 

Mt. Kanchendzonga Central peak

 

Mt. Kabru South peak

 

Mt. Pandim peak

 

This time, our festive revelries were truly colourful, cheered up by a lifetime stay at the heritage hotel. We thoroughly enjoyed the multi-coloured views of the Kanchenjunga range, ultimate solitude, lovely bonfire, tasty food, aromatic Darjeeling tea and the prevailing chilling climate – exactly what we had planned as part our Holi celebrations.

The Imperial Gateways of Bengal Sultanate at Gour

A personal travel blog by Ms. Reetwika Banerjee

(Connect with her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/reetwika.banerjee)

 

Gour of Malda district was once the capital of ancient Bengal, from early 5th century till 16th century AD, being ruled by multiple influential kingdoms starting from Mauryas to Guptas, Pals, Sens, Mughals and Afghans. The place has also significant mentions in Ramayana which says it was originally discovered by Laxman who named it as Lakhnauti. But another school of thought says, the city was named Lakhnauti in the name of Lakshman Sen, the then ruler of ancient Bengal. Later it was renamed to Gour (evolved from the Bengali word ‘gur’ meaning molasses) by the Muslims for which the city is famous even today.

 

 

Whatever be the etymology of the place, every corner of it speaks of its golden past. Most of the city stands in ruins now. However, remnants of its lost grandeur have been preserved by the Archaeological Survey of India and any kind of picnic is strictly prohibited inside the historic monuments and adjoining premises.

 

Unfortunately, there are no luxury accommodations yet. Other than a newly opened 3-star private resort, there is only a budget quality Government lodge for tourist accommodation. Needless to say, Gour needs more focus from our Government for administrative glorification of the lost capital so that it is frequented by foreign visitors in the days to come.

 

Way to Malda by Road

 

Gour is well connected by rail and road. We love long drives and thus preferred to self-drive to Malda by road. From Kolkata airport it is little less than 330 kilometres. There are three different routes to reach Gour, we took the one via SH7 from Barddhaman till Moregram and then NH34 till Gour. Road conditions are moderately good, with frequent bidirectional traffic in one-way lanes. Hence speed loving highway freaks may not enjoy the drive much. Also there are irregular patches in certain parts of the road. Overall in the entire stretch, there are three places where road and traffic conditions are really bad – Bardhhaman station road, junction near Nalhati in SH7 and near Farakka Barrage. It took us around 9 hours to reach Gour, out of which 1.5 hours were wasted in simply crossing the Farakka Bridge. Due to renovation work in progress, the bridge was open on one side only, allowing limited traffic in batches.

 

Way to Gour from Farakka

 

The city of Gour acted as the capital of all the ruling dynasties and was built very differently than other cities of its time. It was highly walled (approx 22 yards in height) on all sides with one lavish entry gate in three geographical directions. The gates served as royal entrances to the inner citadel comprising of an imperial palace, a gigantic prison, huge lakes, fruit orchards, suburbs, servant quarters, tombs, mausoleums, monuments and innumerable buildings of religious importance (temples converted to mosques with the change in hands).

 

The four gates in three directions are named differently, indicating their individual significance – Daakhil Darwaza (North), Kotwali Darwaza (South), Gumti Darwaza (East) and Lukochuri Darwaza (East). There are no gates in the western side as River Ganga used to flow near the castle of Gour in that era. But with centuries of time, the river has changed its course and in present day it is quite far away from the fort.

 

Dakhil Darwaza

 

The ‘Dakhil Darwaza’ served as the main entrance to the regal ramparts of Gour through which the Sultans used to enter the palace. The biggest northern gateway of the fort, this imperial gateway was built by Sultan Nasiruddin Mahmud Shah which was further strengthened by Sultan Barbak Shah in the year of 1459 and later upgraded by Sultan Alauddin Husain Shah. Since then, it was mostly restricted for the private movements of royal family. Canons were fired every time when they entered through this gate which earned its colloquial name ‘Salami Darwaza’.

 

Daakhil Darwaza Entry

 

Daakhil Darwaza Entry Portico

 

Daakhil Darwaza terracotta works

 

Made of burnt red bricks, the beautiful terracotta carvings on the porch are impressive which bear a testimony to the beautiful amalgamation of Hindu and Islamic architectures. Photography here is a delight. The piers between the porticos are made of black granite stone which strongly support the overhanging arches. There are four towers at the corners comprising of twelve-sided five-storeyed curvilinear domes. Inside the gateway there are couple of guardsman rooms which are deserted now. The only sound which could be heard is that of the bats. Towards the southeast corner of the gate, a 22 yards high wall encloses the ruins of Sultan’s royal palace.

 

Kotwali Darwaza (Indo-Bangladesh border)

 

‘Kotwali Darwaza’ was the primary southern gateway of the castle, around 8 kilometres away from ‘Dakhil Darwaza’. It was built just before the death of Allauddin Khilji in 1235 AD. A gigantic brick laden structure, it served as the main city entrance for the common people. Being always guarded by the ‘Kotwal’ (meaning Police Chief in Persian language), it was named so. Now in complete ruins, it has been overgrown by grass and shrubs all over. Only the peripheral convex shaped towers are partially visible. However, the massiveness of the gateway depicts the level of protection it provided to the castle.

 

Climb on top of Kotwali Darwaza

 

Presently it forms the Indo-Bangladesh border and is stringently monitored by our Border Security Force (BSF) from Indian side and Bangladesh’s Simanta Raksha Bahini (SRB) on the other. Any kind of photography of the international border and the historic gate is strictly prohibited. Upon requesting the BSF Chief, they allowed us to climb up to the top of the ‘Kotwali Gate’ through a natural slope. We could not stop taking the risk to try our ascent up the ruined gate. The view from top was a lifetime treasure, feeling like a Sultan indeed. On our right was Bangladesh’s Nawabganj district while on left was India’s Mahidpur (Malda district). Wow!

 

Gumti Darwaza

 

The ‘Gumti Darwaza’ was a single domed, relatively smaller gate at the eastern side of the fort. It comprised of enamelled bricks, constructed later during the Afghan rule in 1512 AD by Sultan Allauddin Hussain Shah. Originally it served as the entrance to the mausoleum of Chamkan, later being opened for generic use. It is believed that kilos of pure gold brought form Middle East were used to decorate this gate, but right now only remnants of the glazed bricks could be seen. The gate is now closed for public. It can only be witnessed from outside.

 

Lukochuri Darwaza

 

‘Lukochuri Darwaza’ was the grandest of all the internal gateways used by the Mughals for royal entertainment purposes. With multiple confusing chambers, as the name suggests, this gate was used by the Sultan for fun plays like hide-and-seek with his Begums. However during the Afghani rule, it was restricted to a private entrance into the inner ramparts of the citadel. But later in 1655 AD, after getting renovated by Sultan Shah Shuja, son of Emperor Shah Jahan, it was converted to a ‘Nuqqarkhana’ (meaning ‘Drummer’s Chamber’ in English). Trumpets and drums were beaten during the Emperor’s entry into and exit from the citadel.

 

This three-storeyed majestic gateway, made of burnt red bricks, is rectangular in shape; flanked by arched doors in the centre and all four sides. Built in authentic Mughal architectural style, this gate stands as one of the most prominent monuments of Gour.

 

 

Other than these four gateways, there were two more namely ‘Chand Darwaza’ and ‘Nim Darwaza’, but because of their fragile constructions they do not exist anymore. Thanks to the enormous efforts taken by ASI, the remnants of the old capital are being preserved. But we need more support from the authorities to attract increasing tourists round the year. They may start training local guides to articulate the blood warming stories of the rulers of Gour, publish attractive brochures and booklets about the rich history of the place, design light-and-sound programs at the important monuments and so on.

 

We, as proud Bengalis, also must join hands to develop a sustainable promotional plan for Gour. Sad to say, it did not get the deserved focus from its own people. Hardly any outsiders visit the place today compared to the footfalls of Murshidabad and Bishnupur. Loads of secrets lie hidden inside the century old terracotta bricks of Gour. Let us take some conscious efforts to open the prosperous treasure to the entire world.

Gour & Pandua – The Land of Terracotta Mosques

A personal travel blog by Ms. Reetwika Banerjee

(Connect with her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/reetwika.banerjee)

 

By hearing the word ‘terracotta’ (burnt clay of brick red colour), the first thought that comes to our mind is ancient Hindu temples of Bishnupur. But I was really amazed to discover an array of antique terracotta mosques at the lost capitals of Gour and Pandua in Malda district of West Bengal. It was a planned fort city belonging to the medieval period. Few monuments including terracotta mosques, which have passed the ravages of time, stand in bones and skeletons today; pleading for attention from the modern world. Recently, a song from the Tollywood hit ‘Bojhena Se Bojhena’ was shot at different corners of Gour and Pandua, depicting the glorious past of the ruined capitals.

 

Glimpse of Terracotta Artworks on Gour Mosques

 

Malda can be easily reached by rail or road; rail is preferred but we are long drive freaks as you know; and thus voyaged again on an audacious road drive from Kolkata via Farakka.

 

There are different schools of thought about the monuments of Gour and Pandua. Some say they were built by the early Hindu kings which gained ultimate prominence in 7th century AD during the reign of King Shashanka. Later when transferred to the hands of Buddhist patrons of Pals and Sens, they flourished the kingdom from 8th to 12th century AD. But when the Islamic dynasties took control over the fort in 13th century, the temples were all converted to mausoleums which seem to be the source of exquisite terracotta artworks of Gour and Pandua mosques.

 

Historians have mentioned about twelve mosques inside the citadel of Gour and couple of more at Pandua, the Afghan capital. But as of today, only seven have been renovated and opened to public by Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). These are – Boro Sona Masjid, Qadam Rasool Masjid, Chika Masjid, Lottan Masjid, Gunmantam Masjid, Tantipara Masjid and Chamkati Masjid. Apart from these, there are Adina Masjid and Choto Sona Masjid at Pandua, around 16 kilometres from Gour.

 

All the mosque premises are beautifully decorated with flowering plants by ASI. However, any kind of picnic is strictly prohibited within the campuses. There is no formal parking facility at any of the monuments, but ample amateur parking space is available outside the entrances.

 

Boro Sona Masjid (Great Golden Mosque)

 

The Boro Sona Masjid (Great Golden Mosque) is the most remarkable of all the monuments of Gour, the largest of its type, if not in the entire state. It earned its name due to the gilded gold ornamentations on its domes and cornices. The arcaded aisle of the long corridor is the grandest among its other features. The brick walls and stone pillars stand straight; however, none of the gold ornate carvings exist today. But the Indo-Arabic style of architecture makes it a matchless destination for tourists.

 

Baro Duari Masjid

 

The erection of the mosque was started by Sultan Alauddin Hussain Shah and was completed in 1526 AD by his son Sultan Nasiruddin Nusrat Shah. It is a rectangular edifice comprising of a colossal prayer hall and twelve doorways, out of which only one is closed and rest all are open. Hence many call the mosque as Baro Duari Masjid (Twelve Gated Mosque).

 

Muazzin’s podium

 

There are three facades of the edifice, couple of which are in ruins, except one in the east which stands proudly in its original glory even today. In the south-east, there is a broken podium, which was perhaps used by the Muazzin for calling the devotees before the commencement of the holy prayer. And in the north, the remains of a ladies prayer gallery could be seen. Spending an hour at the mosque is a wonderful experience.

 

Qadam Rasool Masjid

 

 

A few yards from the Baro Sona Mosque stands the Qadam Rasool Masjid, built in 1531 AD by Sultan Nasiruddin Nusrat Shah. From the name itself it can be made out that this mosque houses the footprint (meaning ‘Qadam’ in Arabic) of Hazrat Muhammad (meaning ‘Rasool’ in Arabic). As per Islamic belief, whenever Prophet stepped on a holy stone, it bore a permanent impression.

 

Exquisite terracotta ornamentation on the inner mosque wall

 

In Qadam Rasool Mosque, His right footprint is enshrined on a white marble inside a single domed building with arched balconies surrounding it. On the four corners there are four stone towers made of black marble. One can also find the holy Arabic inscriptions on the eastern wall of the mosque. However, the resting shed in front of it is now in complete ravages, except a few arched facades. The most striking feature of this mosque is the exquisite terracotta artwork on its outer walls, commonly found in Hindu temples of the same era, which makes it one of the most salient monuments of Gour.

 

Holy Arabic inscriptions

 

 

Tomb of Fateh Ali Khan

 

The tomb of Dilawar Khan’s son Fateh Ali Khan, sent by Aurangzeb to kill Peer Shah Niamatullah of Gour (who was apprehended to instigate Sultan Shuja against the Emperor), is housed inside the mosque. Surprisingly, after reaching the fort Fateh Khan died out of vomiting blood and his tomb is constructed in a typical Hindu temple style (‘aat chala’) within the building. No records of the architect are documented though. Apart from Fateh Khan’s mausoleum, there are other open tombs too inside the premises. Any kind of videography is strictly prohibited inside the Qadam Rasool Masjid.

 

Chamkan Masjid (Bat Mosque)

 

The next remarkable religious monument of Gour is the Chamkan Masjid (Bat Mosque); located hardly a few steps ahead of Qadam Rasool. The name has a very unique origin. The mosque is colloquially termed as Chika alias Chamkan Masjid because it was swamped with huge number of bats (‘Chika’ in Arabic, or ‘Chamchika’ in Bengali) in past. It is a single-domed building, but now almost in ruins except the exterior walls and the backside stone pillars. The prayer hall gates are also closed for public due to the nuisance of bats.

 

Rear side of Chika Masjid

 

Though named as a mosque, it was originally a Hindu temple which is also evident from its architectural pattern and stone carvings. Impression of Hindu Gods on the stone pillars and lintels are still sparsely visible. Was taken over by the Mughals in the year 1450 AD, replacing the original stone works with enamelled bricks, typical of Islamic style. A few years later, during the reign of Sultan Hussain Shah, it was used as a royal prison house from 1493-1519 AD. After his death, it was finally converted to a mausoleum.

 

Lottan Masjid

 

Our next stopover was at Lottan Masjid, a double domed structure, located on the Mahidpur highway heading towards the Indo-Bangladesh international border. The road was earlier known as King’s way or Governor’s road, but now renamed to Mahidpur highway where it ends in Indian side. Beyond it is the Nawabganj district of Bangladesh after crossing the international border. On way, we visited the vestiges of royal dock (‘Jahaj Ghata’), the palace of Hindu kings (‘Ballal Bati’) and their 22-yards high perimeter wall (locally famous as ‘Baish Gazi Dewal’).

 

Jahaj Ghata

 

Ballal Bati

 

Baish Gazi Dewal

 

Though named as a mosque now, but originally it was built by Sultan Yusuf Shah as a personal residence of his favourite dancer courtesan Lottan Bai. Historians say, the lady was an epitome of beauty and creativity. To ensure Lottan Bai’s dignity and also to honour her gorgeousness, the Sultan had built her this colourful mansion in 1475 AD, outside the inner fort of Gour.

 

Enamelled brick works on Lottan Masjid

 

The exterior walls were decorated with brightly painted bricks made of coloured glass powder (blue, red, white, green etc), only remnants of which could be witnessed now. It is a pity that the enamelled stones have vanished now, remaining only in bits and pieces on the outer walls. Doors are locked for public. A worn out tree in front of the entry gate is the only witness of the century old secrets hidden inside the royal edifice. The inner hall is surrounded by verandas on all sides with sloping roofs. And the entire building is located in the middle of a huge mango orchard, famous for Fajli mangoes even today. The gardens are beautifully maintained by ASI. Parking has to be done on the main road, outside the mosque.

 

Little ahead, inside the Muslim dwellings is the Gunmantam, another protected ASI monument of Gour. But due to traffic congestion caused by a local procession, we skipped Gunmantam, took a U-turn and proceeded towards Tantipara.

 

Tantipara Masjid (Weaver’s Mosque)

 

Tantipara Masjid (Weaver’s Mosque) is also located on the Mahidpur highway, on the opposite side of the road. In those days, Gour was famous for producing huge quantities of muslin and a heavy chunk of the population comprised of weavers.

 

 

Legends say, this mosque was built by the Sultans especially for these professionals (weavers). No ASI boards were found in front of the mosque, hence it is difficult to gauge the exact age of this building. Sadly, there are two tombs near the entrance but with no epitaphs. However the premises are well maintained by the authorities.

 

Unnamed tombs at Tantipara Masjid

 

This mosque is one of the most conspicuous of all the mosques in the area but with time it has lost its glamour. The octagonal interior domes have collapsed.

 

Collapsed octagonal interior domes

 

It is commonly believed that the mosque might have been purposely looted by the intruders as it was richly ornamented with gold works at cornices and turrets. The black stone pillars still stand strong as elegant as ever. The western side has massive prayer niches which were profusely decorated with precious stones and gilded gold in those days, but nothing exists today other than the half-fallen brick walls.

 

Garden side of Tantipara Masjid

 

Our final stopover was the Chamkati Masjid (Skin Cutter’s Mosque), also located on the Mahidpur highway within a mile from Gunmantam. It is one of the smallest mosques of Gour, hardly visited by any tourists. Once dilapidated, it has now been opened to public after restoration.

 

Chamkati Masjid (Skin Cutter’s Mosque)

 

The naming of the mosque associates with the skin-cutter class of Muslims. It is believed that this building was constructed in 1475 AD by Sultan Shamsuddin Yusuf Shah for the religious prayers of the ‘Chamkatti’ professionals. It comprises of a small dome and a three-way vaulted veranda in the east. The external walls were decorated with glazed tiles, only the ruins could be seen now. However, the beautiful terracotta reliefs have stood the weathering over centuries and can be well watched even today.

 

Terracotta designs on Chamkatti Masjid

 

With the sun setting in the west, our Gour trip ended with a bittersweet feeling. Sweet because of witnessing the awesomeness of the lost capital and capturing every bit of it through our lens. Bitter for lack of deserved attention and advertisement by the managing authorities to present the rich history of our ancient Bengal to the world at large. Hopefully, after reading this travel tale, many of you who love history and Bangla, would plan to make the twin heritage cities Gour and Pandua your next holiday destination.

Borgee Encounter at Itachuna Royal Palace

A personal travel blog by Ms. Reetwika Banerjee

(Connect with her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/reetwika.banerjee)

 

During my schooldays, I had read in history book that during early 18th century, eastern India was plundered by the ravaging Maratha warriors, prevalently known as the ‘Notorious Borgees’.  They were successful in creating such terror among the common masses that even mothers scolded innocent kids by their names, if troubled. Innumerable colloquial hymns were recited in those days; some of which passed the ordeal of time and are hummed even in modern times. An example of one of the most popular rhymes goes like this:-

“Khoka ghumolo, para jurolo

Borgee elo deshe

Bulbuli te dhaan kheyeche

Khajna debo kise?”

 

(If translated in English, the rhyme conveys a terrifying message – The entire village sleeps with the sleeping kid, when the scary Borgees arrive to loot them. The villagers feel threatened if birds eat away their paddies as there will not be any extra stock to give away to the burglars.)

 

History says, if any villager failed to pay agricultural tax to the Borgees, they would go to any extent of physical torture as penalty. By adopting different frightening techniques, the Borgees had robbed massive wealth from the villages of Bengal for over a century. One of such fragments of historical carnage stands even today at Itachuna – the royal palace of the ‘Kundan’ family belonging to the race of devastating Borgees.

 

Itachuna Royal Palace of the Borgees

 

Itachuna is a small village in the Hooghly Rural district of West Bengal, not very far from the madding crowd of Kolkata. It can be accessed equally by rail or road. We planned to go by road and return by local train. The royal palace is geographically located at a distance of approximately 70 kilometers from Kolkata. Driving through the Old Delhi Road (NH13) is the fastest route, irrespective of present road and traffic conditions. The only pain of this route is that even being a national highway, the road is under reconstruction between Dankuni till Bansberia. The frequent one way lanes allowing goods carriers are a known nuisance. Evening drive is riskier as the potholes are not noticeable properly at many places. Recently, heavy vehicles have been banned in this stretch which has reduced the peril to some extent.

 

Last anniversary, I had been there with my family for a night out. Nowadays, tourists are often invited to spend time to adore the stately beauty of the Itachuna Royal Palace. Hearing the Kundan epic sagas from our office canteen cook, who happened to be a resident of Itachuna village, we found the Borgee history to be captivating enough to plan a trip. From his narrations we could make out, the natives still have a mix of hatred and respect for the rulers due to extreme ancestral brutality and gradual empathetic metamorphosis of the Kundans with time. As per him, the best way to reach there is to board a local train from Howrah, get down at Khanyan (23rd railway station in the Barddhaman main line) and then take a hand-pulled rickshaw or trekker to the palace.

 

Royal Entrance of the Palace

 

 

View from inner courtyard

 

After having an early breakfast, five of us started our family night out to Itachuna Royal Palace, commonly known as ‘Borgee Danga’ by the locales. Though we travelled by a reserved outstation cab from Kolkata till Itachuna, in love of unknowns, we got down near Khanyan station and let the car go. After reaching the station we discovered that trekkers are not that common as a public vehicle. However, ample number of man-pulled van rickshaws (typical of Eastern India’s remote corners) was available to take us to the palace. It was hardly 2.5 kilometers from the station and it did not take us much time to reach as the internal road was quite decent for a rickshaw ride. On way we crossed the historical Itachuna Degree College and Itachuna Hospital which were founded by the later rulers who supported education and healthy wellbeing of the villagers.

 

Brick Red Structure of the main building

 

Before narrating our kingly stay at the palace, let me share the bloodcurdling history of the notable Kundan family residing in the said province. After the fall of the Mughals, Maratha warriors under the leadership of Bhaskar Pandit and Raghuji Bhonsle had invaded Bengal during 1750s. Regions along the Gangetic plains of Hooghly district were their initial place of stay. Shri Safallya Narayan Kundan was the founder who constructed this royal palace of Itachuna in the year 1766. They plundered enormous wealth from the Nawab and rich local zamindars in the name of ‘Chauth’ tax (popularly referred as ‘Khajna’ in Bengali). They also brutally tortured and indiscriminately assassinated the poor commoners who were unable to fulfill their hefty demands. As a result, the Maratha warriors earned their colloquial name ‘Borgee’ and their capital Itachuna as ‘Borgee Danga’.

 

Way to private residence of the palace

 

Kundans were one of those Maratha races who continued to stay in Itachuna even after the abolition of Borgee rule by the Government. However, with centuries, the Kundans got renamed to Kundus, whose successors still own the royal palace.

 

Soon after stepping inside the palace we realized, what a splendor it was! Constructed over acres of land, a massive imperial beauty indeed. Had to admit, the Kundans had a superb taste of style. There was a big iron gate at the entrance. Just as we walked in, a gigantic maroon building beckoned us. A U-shaped grassy lawn welcomed our tired dusty feet as we walked in; crossing that we could reach the building’s staircase.

 

Itachuna Royal Palace – A grand architecture

 

 

Behind it there was a grand temple dedicated to the Kundan’s traditional deity. Even today regular evening prayers are offered by the in-house priest. The building comprised of two long wings, architecture closely resembling the English alphabet ‘H’ – now referred as North and South towers, dividing across two sides from the central stairway.

 

Green U-shaped garden at the entrance

 

H-shaped outer palace

 

 Back side view of the palace from terrace

 

We climbed up the narrow dark staircases to land onto the wide corridor of the northern side of the first floor. Lively oil paintings of all the Kundan successors adored the long corridor. To add a majestic touch, a number of age-old musical instruments including bamboo chimes, wooden violin, tribal stringed instruments and many more were used to decorate the hallway. All bore a touch of imperial elegance.

 

Bamboo chime of the Borgees

 

Giant chessboard and wooden pawns

 

Ethnic wall clocks 

 

 

A little ahead, was the darbar hall of the king – a huge circular area, walls decorated with typical Borgee weapons – spectacular heavyweight metallic swords, air-guns, rifles, self-defensive arms, metal jackets and what not! Especial was the royal sword with the king’s name gorgeously engraved on the wooden handle.

 

A splash of imperial luxury

 

 

 

The most interesting of all was the naming convention followed for the rooms. They were not numbered, instead tagged after the names of the respective family members like ‘Thakuma’, ‘Boro Babu’, ‘Mejo Babu’, ‘Choto Babu’, ‘Ginni Maa’, ‘Boro Maa’, ‘Mejo Maa’, ‘Boro Boudi’, ‘Choto Boudi’, ‘Boro Pishi’, ‘Kaka Babu’, ‘Jethamashai’, ‘Bordi’ and so on. We were allotted two of the best rooms – ‘Thakuma’ (oldest queen) in first floor and ‘Choto Babu’ (youngest prince) on second floor. ‘Thakuma’s room was actually a suite, neatly decorated with a grand queen sized bed made of Mahogany wood and an antique dressing table. There was also a personal swing in front of the room to enjoy private leisure hours. ‘Choto Babu’s room was on the chile kotha (single room at the top of the terrace) which was a typical bachelor’s room with a big king sized wooden cot and antique table chairs.

 

A climb to ‘Choto Babu’ room on the chile kotha

 

Open terrace outside ‘Ginni Maa’ room

 

Peeping through ‘Boro Babu’ room

 

Wooden swing of royal era in front of ‘Boro Boudi’ room

 

Gardened terrace of North wing

 

Time was close to 6 pm. The caretaker lit up all the lanterns at the fall of the sun, just before the grand evening prayer.

 

Imperial lanterns of the palace

 

 

Dinner was served early by 8.30pm. Food was very fresh and tasty; the cook must be specially appreciated for serving all what we had ordered in such a traditional Bengali cuisine style – a heritage stay in every aspect. The most striking aspect of the dining hall was a century old menu card displayed on the northern wall. It was the wedding menu of Shafalla Narayan Kundan, comprising of 101 dishes starting from exclusive appetizers to exotic desserts. However, none of the royal delicacies are available to order at present.

 

Royal wedding menu of Shafalla Narayan Kundan

 

Ancient window of dining hall

 

Compared to a homestay (as they call it), the tariff was quite on the higher side, yet it was worth the experience offered. Check out was hassle free but arranging public transport from the palace to the Khanyan station was a huge mess. No pickup-drop facilities were offered by the authorities and the locality being totally rural; it was damn difficult for us to get a public transport. We had to literally walk half the way before meeting a fully packed trekker. The driver was kind enough to allow us to overload it externally. Three of us somehow managed to step onto the backstairs while my husband and I enjoyed the sideways. The flying experience added a special touch to the entire tour.

 

In a nutshell, the overall experience was quite different from our expectations. Not at all like any other homestay resorts we are commonly used to these days. It takes you back to the historical fiery days of Borgees through the vintage decorations and extravaganza. There are so many folklores on the ferocious Borgees. Getting a chance of spending a night at their palace, sleeping on their palonko (royal bed), having food in their wooden dining extravaganza, play chess the regal style – in totality, truly a breath taking lifetime experience.

 

A grand stay at Itachuna Royal Palace

A Dreamy Escape to Icche Gaon

A personal travel blog by Ms. Reetwika Banerjee

(Connect with her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/reetwika.banerjee)

 

Icche Gaon, just 85 kilometres from Siliguri bus depot, is a colourful hill station in the Kalimpong district of West Bengal. It is perched at an altitude of 6000 feet above sea level, comprising of hardly forty houses, divided in two clusters – Upper Icche and Lower Icche, surrounded by a pristine Pine Dhupi (pine forest as they mean in Nepali language).

 

Glimpse of Icche Gaon

 

We had plans to spend couple of nights at Icche Gaon during the Christmas holidays to celebrate our fifth anniversary; thus, privately reserved a cab to ensure a cosy ride. Not all Siliguri taxis have permit to enter Icche Gaon forest. So, you must be cautious before paying any advance to the driver. It is always advisable to confirm their entry permit at the booking counter or the travel agency from where you hire the cab. Otherwise, most of them will drop you at Kalimpong market taxi stand and you need to reserve another local cab to drop you at Icche Gaon. In that case, the overall cost will definitely be higher than a direct drop from Siliguri.

 

Crossing Rambi market near Kalimpong

 

View of Teesta River On Way

 

After crossing Kalimpong three-point crossing, we took the Bhalu Marg towards north. The meandering view of Teesta River in this route always adds a complaisant feeling to my grey vision. Chilly breezes and dense cloud covers kissed us as we kept soaring higher. Icche Gaon was barely 20 kilometres from here but the ride took almost an hour due to the hilly terrains and increasing altitude.

 

Bhalu Marg from Kalimpong to Icche Gaon

 

Results of our online surfing confirmed, there was nothing much to do at Icche Gaon. It’s not a typical destination for activity lovers. A secluded stay in the lap of mighty Himalayas, overlooking the greeneries from hilltop with a cup of steaming Darjeeling tea is all what Icche Gaon is known for. For lazy vacationers like us, it was an ideal romantic getaway. To relish a serene private holiday, we preferred to touch the handful of sightseeing points on our way to keep the next day at leisure.

 

Way to Ramitey Dara Viewpoint

 

Approaching Ramitey Dara

 

There were three viewpoints Ramitey Dara, Devrali Dara and Himali Dara along with a couple of beautiful temples Mahadev Dham and Hanuman Tok for the visitors to take photographic breaks. Actually ‘Dara’ in Nepali means view point. The scenic view of the snowcaps and merging of Rangeet River with the gorgeous Teesta, make them a very special attraction trio for all tourists.

 

Merging of Rangeet River with Teesta at Ramitey Dara

 

There was a local vendor selling tomato chat with tamarind sauce at Ramitey Dara – oh what a yummy dish it was! Coupled with a cup of green tea, he made our day. No wildlife sighted in and around except a few Grey Wagtails, Himalayan Bulbuls and an Indian Giant Squirrel.

 

Yummy Tomato Chat at Ramitey

 

Sighting of Verditer Flycatcher at Icche Gaon

 

Grey Wagtail at Icche Gaon

 

Giant Indian Squirrel at Icche Gaon

 

Devrali Dara Viewpoint

 

From there we went to Mahadev Dham and later to Hanuman Tok (‘tok’ means temple in Nepali). The temple houses a gigantic statue of Lord Hanuman at the top of the hill. We had to climb around 300 steps to reach the summit; but undoubtedly it’s a must go site from Icche Gaon. The day was so clear that we could catch a glimpse of the Lava and Kaffer hills from the top. While descending, we also visited the Singha Bahini Dham at Devrali Dara (dedicated to Goddess Durga) where Prasad (holy food) was getting distributed. And we too were fed by the sacred hearts of the temple.

 

Way to Mahadev Dham

 

In Front of Mahadev Dham

 

Shrine at Mahadev Dham

 

Trek to Hanuman Tok

 

Gigantic Statue of Lord Hanuman

 

Stopover at Singha Bahini Dham

 

We reached our homestay by four in the evening. All the houses of Icche Gaon are beautifully decorated with Himalayan flowering plants of vibrant colours. From a distance it looks like a colourful canvas against a clear blue sky.

 

Beautifully Decorated Homestays of Icche Gaon

 

Colourful Himalayan Flowering Plants

 

The only point of concern is that four wheelers cannot arrive till the entrance of majority of the Upper Icche houses, due to steep hilly slope. We had to alight at the base of Lower Icche and climb on feet till Upper Icche Gaon where our homestay was booked. The ascent was almost a flight of fifty vertical steps carved out of natural mountainous rocks. The approach stairways to the relatively better quality homestays, last few steps were artificially cemented. Luckily we were a young couple. Elderly folks and kids might find it extremely strenuous. It is better to take prior information about the homestay before making any booking through their agents in Kolkata.

 

Alighting at Lower Icche Due to Restricted Car Accessibility

 

Ascent to Upper Icche On Foot

 

Our Homestay at Upper Icche Gaon

 

Homestay Rooms

 

Attached Balcony

 

With a Cup of Hot Darjeeling Special Green Tea

 

In and Around Icche Gaon

 

 

Next morning our alarm clock ticked sharp at 6am. The sunrise view of changing colours on Mt. Kanchenjunga from our attached balcony was splendid. Post lunch we went for a brisk walk in the adjoining Pine Dhupi, reciting some of the most romantic Tagore poetries together. What could have been a better place to rediscover ourselves!

 

Sunrise View from Balcony

 

Mt. Kanchendzonga Range During Sunrise

 

Mt. Kanchendzonga Range After Sunrise

 

Overall stay at Icche Gaon was very pleasant with a scenic view of the mountains, tea gardens and Pine Dhupi from our balcony. Our open terrace was gorgeously decorated with multi-coloured flower pots, which seemed to be well maintained by the landlady. By 10am, our driver had come to drop us at Siliguri. Another lovely tour concluded. Let’s see what’s waiting next in the list.

 

Bye Bye Icche Gaon – See You Soon!

600 Years’ Ancient Domestic Kali Puja of Bengal

A personal travel blog by Ms. Reetwika Banerjee

(Connect with her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/reetwika.banerjee)

 

While most of the Indian states observe Diwali, West Bengal witnesses a traditional ethnic style of celebrating the first new moon night of Hindu calendar month ‘Kartik’ by worshiping Goddess Kali. The same day is dedicated to the puja of Goddess Lakshmi by others, but Bengalis perform stringent devotional sacrifices towards Goddess Kali at home, public pandals and cremation grounds (especially where she is believed to dwell) on the eve of Bhoot Chaturdashi.

 

Of late, like Durga Puja, Kali Puja (also known as Shyama Puja as ‘Shyama’ is the other name of the deity) is also becoming a festive extravaganza of the city of joy, especially in Hooghly district. Some of the top theme based public pujas of 2018 which caught eyes of the devotees include Meghdoot Club, Apanjan Club, Runner Club, Bharat Sangha and Rabindra Nagar Club.

 

Pandal of Meghdoot Club (Theme: Marble Buddha Temple of Thailand)

Idol of Meghdoot Club

 

Pandal of Apanjan Club (Theme: Jute Handicrafts of Bengal)

Idol of Apanjan Club

 

Idol of Runner Club (Theme: Dakshineshwar Kali Maa)

 

Pandal of Bharat Sangha (Theme: Dacoit’s Den)

Idol of Bharat Sangha

 

Idol of Rabindra Nagar Club (Theme: Traditional)

 

The household festivity of Goddess Kali was first adopted by Raja Krishna Chandra during early 18th century. Since then, it was patronized by eminent Bengali families and wealthy landlords as an annual domestic ritual. It is typically characterized by an overnight worshiping of the Goddess, followed by animal sacrifices at midnight. The idol is mostly created on the same day of the puja and is completed before sunset.

 

The domestic Kali Puja of Somnagar village’s ‘Bandyopadhyay’ family is one among those ancient heritage pujas of Hooghly district which has been continuing with deep devotion since last 600 years. The village offers a pristine countryside full of lush green paddies, hardly 50 kilometers from Kolkata and is well connected by both rail and road.

 

Pristine countryside of Somnagar village

 

Folklores say, centuries ago a young elite Brahmin was travelling through this village on a summer afternoon. Out of immense fatigue, he chose to take rest under an old Banyan tree. He did not realize when his eyes caught a doze. It was in sleep he met Goddess Kali who instructed the Brahmin to patron her at Somnagar and worship every year on the new moon night of ‘Kartik’ month. A year later, he built a house in the village and constructed a big ‘atchala’ (temple with eight pillars) inside his domestic premises to patronize Goddess Kali in the household. Since then the ‘Bandyopadhyay’s are celebrating Kali Puja with loud pomp and show at their ancestral house in Somnagar. The ‘Sankalpa’ (holy oath) of the puja is still taken in the name of the head of the ‘Bandyopadhyay’ family.

 

Glimpses of 600 year’s old Kali Puja of Somnagar’s ‘Bandyopadhyay’ family

 

Making of the idol at temple premises on the same day of the puja

 

The idol after eye donation – ready to be worshiped

 

The idol is created at the temple premises on the same day of the puja and the rituals are completed over a huge ‘Home Yajna’ (fire sacrifice) followed by animal slaughters. Next morning, the sacred meat is distributed in the entire village as holy ‘Prasad’ (offering) of Goddess Kali.

 

Kali Puja rituals completed overnight

 

Sacred animal sacrifices during midnight

 

Even today, the whole family gathers during the festival, children light up the house with candles and enjoy the puja together. They also open doors to guests to experience their ethnic celebrations during the festive days. It’s a lifetime experience indeed to witness such a vintage yet ceremonial celebration of the festival of lights around this corner of Bengal. Why don’t you plan your next Diwali holidays here?

 

House brightly lit up with candles

 

 

Bhalki Machan – The Ancient Bear Hunting Watchtowers

 A personal travel blog by Ms. Reetwika Banerjee

(Connect with her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/reetwika.banerjee)

 

Bhalki Machan is a well maintained forested area in the borders of Bardhhaman and Birbhum districts of West Bengal. Located around 150 kilometers from Kolkata, Bhalki is a perfect place for weekend leisure trip. It can be reached by train till Paraj (if you are coming from Barddhaman side) or Mankar (if your base location is in Birbhum district) and then by trekker to the forest. But we love long drives. So, keeping aside rail options, we preferred a road trip via Durgapur Expressway and it took us just three hours to reach Abhirampur. Bhalki Machan forest was just ten kilometers from there – a beautiful forest drive.

 

Driving Through Bhalki Machan Forest

 

Years back, Bhalki Machan used to be one of the beloved bear hunting spots of erstwhile Zamindars. The rich men had earthed out a huge man-made lake inside the pristine forest to attract wild animals, especially bears looking for drinking water. Five giant watchtowers were constructed surrounding it to keep a constant watch on them from top – four facing the geographical directions and a central tower in the heart of the forest, thus receiving such an interesting name for the place – Bhalki (‘Bhaluk’ meaning Bear in native language) and Machan (meaning a Watchtower).

 

Five giant watchtowers for Bear hunting

 

Lake near Bhalki Machan watchtowers

 

We started early by 8am in the morning. In fact, we were in a classically rejoicing mood to drive through the rustic roads. Durgapur Expressway is perhaps the best of all National Highways dissecting the state of Bengal. Hardly in an hour’s continuous drive on fifth gear, we had traversed two-third of the distance. And thanks to modern technologies, there were absolutely no hindrances in picking the first right turn off the expressway, after crossing the thickly populated Galsi bazaar area.

 

Way to Bhalki Machan : Road from Galsi to Paraj

 

Road from Paraj to Abhirampur

 

Till Paraj rail gate crossing, the roads were moderately drivable; but soon after, it vanished in mayhem. A robust SUV was much needed. However, “the charm of unknowns dies if you know what’s ahead of you” is our life’s philosophy and hence we were thoroughly enjoying the unpredictable dusty ride. Alongside the road amidst the paddies, we found flocks of Black Headed Ibis which is a winter visitor to the east Indian belt.

 

Flocks of Black Headed Ibis

 

We took our first tea break near Kolkol, a small village once known for its grandeur of past. There was an ancient Shiva temple which is believed to be the residing site of the Pandavas during their absconding phase.

 

Rustic roads from Kolkol

 

From the tea vendor, we came to know the story of a haunting bear at Bhalki forest and another neighboring village of lost glory, called Abhirampur. We remembered reading about this place while searching our routes online. It was supposed to be a Y-junction and the forest entry point should be less than ten kilometers from there.

 

Forest Drive to Bhalki Machan

 

After arriving at the point of intersection, we were little unsure about the correct lane. The worn-out direction boards added to our confusions. Uncharacteristically, there was nobody to ask for the route. Trusting own memory, we decided to take the road towards left and drove straight through the natural boulevard till we reached our destination.

 

A beautiful stretch of Khowai

 

All along the way from Abhirampur, a beautiful stretch of Khowai (dry gorges created by water and wind erosions, typically characterized by the iron rich reddish colour of the riverine soil) accompanied us. The very view of Khowai along the rippling Kopai River floated us to our memories of Shantiniketan tour; one of the most elegant universities of the country which was founded by Nobel Laureate Rabindra Nath Tagore himself. It was this great man who had gracefully named the naturally created picturesque ravines of this belt as Khowai.

 

Dried canal amidst the Khowai

 

Other than a few tribal settlements, we did not come across even a single human being ever since we crossed Abhirampur. Suddenly our eyes fell on a dried canal amidst the Khowai. The rusty iron wheels, seemingly lock gates, indicated water must have stopped flowing through it since ages. But there was a clear sign of human footsteps on the soft muddy patches beneath the wheels. Without spearheading much on the incongruity, we continued towards our onward journey.

 

Aranya Sundari guest house

 

After a mesmerizing drive through the Bhalki forest, we reached our lodge. However, visitors at times need to obtain a written permission from the forest Range Officer before planning their stay inside the dense woods. No private hotels to stay as such, only a subsidized private guest house named ‘Aranya Sundari’ is there for night stay within the forest. Shabby rooms, Indian toilet and substandard wooden cots characterize the budget lodging. The in-house canteen serves as the only source of food in a radius of fifteen kilometers. Ample parking space was available in front of the hotel; that being one of the best amenities of our stay.

 

Beautifully maintained forested garden

 

Our room was on first floor. The premises had a beautifully maintained forested garden surrounding the building and a realistic model of black sloth bear at the entrance enhanced the poetic touch of the place.

 

Model of black sloth bear at the entrance

 

It so happened about a century ago that an old ascetic had lost his way through the jungle. Since night was about to fall, he decided to halt for the day amidst the dense cover of emerald tranquility and resume his journey the next morning. It was midwinter time. To prevent himself from the chilly air streams, the old man wrapped a black cloth around him. Close to midnight, his throat choked in sheer thirst. Hearing bubbling echoes of water, he made his way to the lake.

 

Unfortunately, the gurgling sound created by the ascetic was mistaken for a bear. From above the gigantic watchtowers, the hunting eyes could not differentiate between a human and a sloth bear. The dark colour of his shawl perhaps added to the confusion. In no time, three bullets pierced his heart, killing him on the spot. Listening to a human cry, the hunters realized their fatal mistake. They came running down the towers but it was too late by then. Before dying, the holy man cursed the hunters of ill fate following soon. Since then, folklores became popular surrounding the cursed lake and the forest which even went up to spreading that the old man’s spirit never left the greens and he later came back taking the form of a sloth bear, mysteriously killing anyone visiting the forest at night.

 

Another school of legends says, the Zamindars used to hide their plundered jewels inside the lake. A secret underpass was constructed from each of these watchtowers to their city palace, stretching almost twenty-five kilometers a side. Only a handful of their faithful men were aware of these furtive treasures and secret pathways leading to the lake. For maintaining privacy, preventing public access inside the forest was very critical for them. To avoid any suspicion, the feudatories themselves had created those stories of haunted bears, thus deterring civic intrusions to a considerable extent.

 

Today there are remnants of only the red bricked watchtowers which could pass the test of time and stand as testimony to their yesteryear’s royal grandeur. However, numerous untold sagas still stay hidden behind the bricks of these broken observatories.

 

Nature walk inside Bhalki Machan forest

 

 

 

Lunch was authentic traditional Bengali style served hot and fresh by the canteen staffs. After having our meals, we decided to go for a nature walk inside the forest and also visit the watchtowers on way. The bear hunting spot was hardly hundred meters away from our hotel.

 

Watchtowers of Bhalki Machan

 

 

At first sight, the fortifications appeared very inglorious due to lack of proper maintenance by the governing authorities. Countless shrubs had overgrown the towers since ages and soon they would engulf the remnants too. But every drop of it still pointed to its rich past. Visitors seemed to have littered the place in every possible way – scratching their names, scribbling love messages and so many worthless illustrations had bled the venerable walls over years.

 

Giant brick red turrets

 

Remnants of the ancient watchtowers

 

Five giant brick red turrets stood tall in front, arranged in a rectangular fashion. Their tall crests could hardly be seen against the midday sun. The four corner towers were little thinner and taller while the middle one was much thicker in girth and comparatively shorter in height. The differential arrangement of the ancient game reserve aroused immense curiosity in our minds with no convincing answer yet.

 

As read in various descriptions of Bhalki Machan, there was a deep well like structure just beneath the central tower, probably a secret escape route of the Zamindars. Though the mouth was covered with a tarnished iron grill, the black waterhole appeared like a sinister, hiding loads of dark stories behind its paltry existence today.

 

Secret escape route beneath the watchtowers

 

 

Even today, some local people believe in the spooky folklores, however with time count of such conservatives are decreasing noticeably. The jungle still has numerous birds, hyenas, wild boars and civets. Sadly, no bears reside anymore.

 

A relaxing escape from the bustling city life, Bhalki Machan filled our heart with eternal contentment. The tropical climate added a mystic touch to the rain-forest. Hardly any motor vehicles pass through the forest, thus preserving the whistling ecosystem of the region. We would love to come back again to this place in search of true peace and tranquility.

 

 

Kayaler Jungle – A Birder’s Paradise Amidst City Life

A personal travel blog by Ms. Reetwika Banerjee

(Connect with her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/reetwika.banerjee)

 

‘Kayaler Jungle’ is a vast stretch of greeneries at the outskirts of Kolkata which offers shelter to diverse flora and fauna since centuries. The list includes wide species of resident and migratory birds, butterflies, civets, wild cats, jackals, snakes, ferns, epiphytes and orchids.

 

Earlier the jungle belonged to the notable Kayal family of Kolkata which was later acquired by the Government in 2004 and made open to public thereafter. Recently it has been renamed to ‘Chintamoni Kar Bird Sanctuary’ (CKBS in short) in the honour of the famous Bengali sculptor Chintamoni Kar who had tirelessly fought over a decade’s time for gaining the wildlife sanctuary status of this private garden.

 

Years ago it used to be a grand orchard of the Kayal Zamindars; remnants of fruit trees like mango, guava, jackfruit, coconut, plum, tamarind etc could still be found in large numbers amidst the tall trees. Unfortunately, it was deserted by owners ever since the Zamindari rule was discontinued in Bengal. For over a century, the orchard was neglected like an abandoned property. However, the green cover was dense enough to be awarded the grade of wildlife sanctuary by the Forest Department in 1982.

 

Driving to ‘Kayaler Jungle’ from Narendrapur

 

‘Kayaler Jungle’ is geographically located at an easy drivable distance of only 30 kilometres from the city centre. And the best way to reach here is by road. One can also take a local train from Sealdah till Narendrapur (in Sonarpur section of Kolkata Suburban Railway) and then hire an auto rickshaw till the sanctuary entrance. We preferred to self-drive and reached the place in less than an hour via Eastern Metropolitan Bypass.

 

Large entry gate with ticket counter aside

Colourfully painted exterior walls

 

There was a large gate at the entrance with a ticket counter aside. On a plaque above the porch, the name of the sanctuary was prominently inscribed and the exterior walls were colourfully painted depicting the commonly found birds in the forest.

 

No formal parking

 

No formal parking was available, hence we had to park our car just outside the perimeter wall, at own risk. The surroundings did not look threatening thankfully. Amateur still cameras were allowed inside but entry charges per Indian adult was Rs. 50, which seemed quite high compared to the overall maintenance of the place.

 

Entry ticket Rs. 50 per Indian adult

 

Presently, it falls under the administration of Sunderban Biosphere Reserve of South 24 Parganas (Baruipur Range) and a big board by the Directorate of Forest confirms the notification ID of the same. The sanctuary timing is 7am to 4pm and it is highly advisable to reach there at the earliest to ensure maximum sighting of birds and other animals. Also, towards the afternoon, a wild variety of venomous fly is frequently found inside the woods. If bitten, it may have severe impact on kids and adults alike.

 

Board of Directorate of Forest Department

 

The moment we entered through the main gate, a mid-aged gentleman approached us to serve as our guide. As the internal roads seemed quite confusing, we were more than happy to find him. Immediately after crossing the entry gate and caretaker’s room, the thin forest road bifurcated into thinner lanes in two opposite directions. After a friendly debate, we decided to take the one on our right.

 

Bifurcation of internal road

Mud hut inside the forest

 

Walking through the jungle for barely over a minute, we reached a mud hut, seemingly the office of the Forest Department where couple of officials were busy in paperwork. The hut had a cool shade just outside, where three birders were taking rest and talking to each other. Their massive telephoto lenses bore testimony to their bird-watching interest. It seemed from their conversations that they are quite regular visitors of the place.

 

Big map of the sanctuary and List of birds found here

Colourful pictures of the commonly found birds in the sanctuary

 

Alongside the office room was a big map of the sanctuary and colourful pictures of the birds frequently found there. The information on board served as a dependable reference during our entire trek through the thick forest. No one would believe the existence of such a dense canopy of tall trees just at a stone throwing distance from the bustling metro life of Kolkata. What an amazing place for nature walk and bird-watching right at the middle of the city!

 

A memorable nature walk through ‘Kayaler Jungle’

Water reservoir for the winged friends

 

It took us close to three hours to complete a full round of the entire sanctuary, spending substantial time for photographic poses by the winged friends. Our guide also helped us a lot in identifying different varieties of birds. Among many others, we spotted beautiful birds like Black Hooded Oriole, Tailor Bird, Oriental Magpie Robin, Small Minivet and Fulvous Breasted Woodpecker.

 

Black Hooded Oriole sighted at ‘Kayaler Jungle’

Tailor Bird sighted at ‘Kayaler Jungle’

Oriental Magpie Robin sighted at ‘Kayaler Jungle’

Small Minivet sighted at ‘Kayaler Jungle’

Fulvous Breasted Woodpecker sighted at ‘Kayaler Jungle’

 

By the time we were done for the day, our tired feet wanted some rest. We trailed back to that same mud hut (supposedly the office of Forest Department) which we had noticed at the beginning of our jungle hike.

 

Relishing a rustic cup of tea from the outside vendor, we left for home by afternoon. Another fantastic day trip completed; let’s see what adds up next in the list.

 

The outside tea vendor

 

Hits & Misses of Kolkata’s Durga Puja

A personal travel blog by Ms. Reetwika Banerjee

(Connect with her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/reetwika.banerjee)

 

Durga Puja is celebrated with loud pomp and grandeur across the state of West Bengal, especially in Kolkata. Maa Durga is perhaps the only Goddess who is worshipped with deeper emotions at temporary pandals than in permanent temples by the carnival crazy Bengalis. Loads of activities, businesses and commercial promotions are planned round the year, keeping the grandeur of Durga Puja in mind. No harm in saying, it has now become the festive showstopper of Eastern India.

 

With time and changes in political construct of the state, a handful of the festival organizers have become immensely popular, while a few still maintain their cultural traditionalism. Even the city’s renowned housing estates too throw neck to neck competition to the bigger ones, not just in terms of status but also their grand celebrations. And no festivity is complete without competition. The eminent pujas compete amongst themselves to win awards like Best of the Best, Best Pandal, Best Idol, Best Lighting and so on.

 

Best of South Kolkata Durga Pujas Through My Lens

 

Chetla Agrani Club (Sera Pujo Sharod Samman 2018 award winner)

(Theme: Voice Against Female Infantoecide)

Shuruchi Sangha (Sera Mandap Sharod Samman 2018 award winner)

(Theme: Traditional Clay Art of Bengal)

Alipore Prasannamayee Ghat (92 years old puja of traditional style)

 

Recently, some of the city’s private clubs have started getting sponsorships in crores (budgets often higher than many super hit Tollywood movies) which enable them to decorate the idols with tons of real gold and diamond jewelleries, recreate theme based historical monuments as puja pandals, arrange inaugurations by distinguished guests, organize world class cultural performances by famous celebrities, brighten the city with thousands of lights and what not!

 

Best of North-Eastern Kolkata Durga Pujas Through My Lens

 

Sreebhumi Sporting Club (Sera Mandap Sharod Samman 2018 award winner) 

(Theme: Chittorgarh Fort of ‘Padmavat’, idol decorated with original gold ornaments)

Dum Dum Park Tarun Dol Club

Kestopur Majher Para Sarbojonin

Manicktala Netaji Sangha

Kestopur Prafulla Kanan Sarbojonin

Dum Dum Park Amra Kajon (housing puja)

Hind Motor Runner Club

Mani Square Mall

Salt Lake FD Block 

(Theme: Dinosaur Park)

Salt Lake AK Block (Serar Sera Sharod Samman 2018 award winner)

(Theme: Sita’s Abduction)

 

However, all their year round hard efforts remain incomplete till the time countless visitors flood the puja pandals during the auspicious festival days. Whatsoever, as an ardent crazy fan of Kolkata’s Durga Puja, it feels very humiliating when the organizers or administrators of the prominent pujas (especially respective year’s award winning ones) misbehave with the incoming visitors; as if they have forcibly trespassed the club’s restricted area. Unnecessary road blocks and no entries often create more nuisance than discipline. Rather than mandating needlessly long one way pandal entrances, if entries are left open to natural crowd behaviour, the traffic might take a much better shape. During peak days when the rush is maximum, after a tiring walk of at least a kilometer and a wait of couple of hours, the sweating visitors hardly get a minute to see the idol inside the pandal. From a distance, the queue closely looks like a choked canal with a constant push from behind complemented with loud reprimands from the administrators standing in front of the idol. And by any chance, if someone wants to click a photo inside, hundreds of filthy words will flood his ears criticizing the act and in no time he will be forced to vacate the place as if only because of him the other persons in the queue are prevented from witnessing the idol. By doing this, in an attempt to let everyone see the festive artworks, the club actually prevents all their visitors from witnessing the awesome creativities.

 

At times the visitors are also rebuked using slangs or physically harassed by the administrators (yes you read it correct) to keep them off from taking photographs or selfies anywhere inside their puja pandal or with the idols. If they do not want common people like us to visit their pandals, then what is the reason of creating hypes with those loud advertisements even before the start of the festive week? Instead of gimmicks, they should rather simply invite the media at a comfortable time, record their creative grandeur and telecast to the commoners during the puja days or anytime later. Award winning clubs may also start a ticketing system like cinemas and allow only the bearers inside. This will not only help them to keep away the crazy visitors, but also maintain a healthy atmosphere inside the puja pandals, with no one to disturb the committee members. What’s say, isn’t that a great idea?

 

In case they still want visitor footfalls, as organizers, they must first learn the basics of queue management and effectively handle the crowd rather than misbehaving or throwing people out of the puja pandals so inhumanely. If the youth start abandoning those clubs in the years to come, will the purpose of spending crores in just one puja pandal be met? Will they still get wealthy sponsors by recording a falling TRP? Will lesser footfalls be a success metric for the organizers? It’s high time to give a second thought.